Connecting People and Nature in Biosphere Regions: A USBN-SEAS Initiative

USBN-SEAS Team (left to right): Samuel Kocurek, Alaina Smith, Sarah Davis, Craig Reiley, Mary Kolleth, Sean Skinner, Rongkai Zhong. Photo Courtesy of USBN-SEAS Team

In January 2024, the US Biosphere Network (USBN) welcomed a dedicated team of master’s students from the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). Tasked with advancing environmental conservation, sustainable economic development, and logistical support across the network’s 28 biosphere regions, this project holds immense promise for sparking positive change. The SEAS team is working to amplify the USBN’s capacity through enhanced collaboration, provision of resources for successful periodic reviews, and effective showcasing of US biosphere regions’ conservation practices. 

Their multifaceted approach involves qualitative research and narrative analyses to gauge capacity, bridging partnership gaps, compiling reports on climate resilience and academic papers on gender inclusivity opportunities, and spotlighting the USBN’s innovative sustainable development approach. Additionally, they are creating an interactive ArcGIS story map and revamping the USBN’s web presence to further facilitate engagement and communication within the network and beyond. The team’s work is being supported by Jon Allan, Chair of the USBN Steering Committee and Academic and Research Program Officer Sr. at the University of Michigan, Cliff McCreedy, National Park Service/Federal Liaison to the USBN, and Dr. Kelly L. Cerialo, Coordinator for the US Biosphere Network.

The SEAS team’s initiative marks a pivotal moment in the evolution of the USBN, reinforcing its role in driving sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. Through strategic interventions in collaboration, research, and communication, this project aims to empower biosphere regions across the U.S. to thrive in their mission. 




Sarah Davis

Sarah is pursuing a master’s with a dual focus in Behavior, Education, and Communication and Ecosystem Science and Management. Sarah earned a dual undergraduate degree in Sociocultural Anthropology and History from Baylor University. She has a background in early education and communications, and plans to work in science communication. Her focus on this project will be conducting qualitative research with stakeholder groups within US biosphere regions, creating communications materials, and assisting with periodic review completion. Her regions of focus include Southern California and Arizona, the Pacific Coast, and Maine.  


Samuel Kocurek 

Sam is pursuing a master’s in Geospatial Data Science and Sustainability and Development. Sam earned a dual undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Environmental Science with a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Connecticut. He has worked with the New England Transportation Consortium, the Snapshot USA project, and now works on Nature Rx. For this project, Sam will be focusing on creating a story map, an academic paper on gender relations/dynamics in biosphere regions, and website content.


Mary Kolleth

Mary is pursuing a Sustainable Systems master’s. While working to complete her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan in Economics and Environmental Science, she has conducted research concerning the conservation of rare plant and amphibian species, as well as environmental justice. Her concentration for this project will be on qualitative research on existing and prospective biosphere regions – focusing on partnerships and a narrative analysis of the USBN. The Midwest and New England will likely be her regions of focus.


Craig Reiley

Craig is pursuing a dual degree master’s in Geospatial Data Science and Sustainability and Development and master’s in Public Policy in International Economic Development. He earned a dual undergraduate degree in Management Information Systems and Marketing with minors in Philosophy and International Business from Grand Valley State University. Craig previously worked as an SAP IT analyst and project manager at General Motors and Stellantis. For this project, Craig is contributing to the story map and conducting qualitative research with indigenous communities and other stakeholder groups. His regions of focus include the Caribbean, Pacific Northwest, and Southern California. 


Sean Skinner

Sean is pursuing a master’s degree in Geospatial Data Science with a dual-specialization in Ecosystem Science Management. Sean earned a Wildlife Conservation Biology degree from the University of New Hampshire. He previously worked as a GIS Technician for Ducks Unlimited, updating the National Wetland Inventory for northern California and eastern Oregon. For this project, Sean will be focusing on creating the story map, website content, and conducting interviews across the USBN. 



Alaina Smith

Alaina is specializing in Industrial Ecology and Sustainable Systems for her master’s degree. Previously, she studied Politics, Environmental Studies, and Latinx Studies at The Catholic University of America, completing a thesis on the Politics of the Global Waste Trade. For this project, Alaina will be working on academic papers and communication strategies to positively impact climate resiliency and gender inclusivity in the US biosphere regions. 



Rongkai Zhong

Rongkai is pursuing his master’s in Geospatial Data Science. Before joining the USBN SEAS team, Rongkai attended the Pennsylvania State University where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in geography. For this project, Rongkai will be focusing on the creation of a story map, developing virtual tours, and collecting image data across US biosphere regions.




For more information about the SEAS team’s work or to get in touch with them, please contact USBN Chair Jon Allan

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